Essence and Variation

The word “essential” is interesting. It describes that which we cannot do without. Food, water, and oxygen (in the right concentration) is essential to human life. It also describes the fundamental character. When we remove the unimportant or marginal parts of something we are left with its essence; removing anything more changes what it is. The idea has a long history in human thought; it is traced in Western cultures to Plato.

Essentialism influences fields of human thought and action. Essentialist biologists would (for example) define the essence of a species and suggest difference from the essence represents lesser or degraded versions. Similar concepts can be seen in education. “The standards” represent what is “essential” to learn—if we teach what it not in the standards, then we are not teaching a degraded curriculum. If students learning what is not in the standards, then they are not learning what is essential.

One of the outcomes of essentialism in education is the long-standing reduction of learning to a grade represented as a percentage. (In reality, this is not a long-standing practice. It was developed in the late 19th century.) Todd Rose, in The End of Average which I review on this post, suggested this is an practice that is dubious in education, design, and most other fields.

One of the most important “discoveries” of biologists, one to which I have connected through the work of Stephen Jay Gould, is variation is the true nature of life. In this view, the variety we observe is the reality. There is no essence, there is only variety. Essentialists will challenge this; “So, where does one draw the line?” Those who see variety respond, “We cannot, if it is natural then there are no lines, only unclear gradations.”

As a researcher, I understand that challenge. When we adopt a scientific approach to problems, we must define our constructs. Researchers (at least those who deserve our attention) do recognize and interpret their observations in terms of their definitions and they identify limitations imposed by their definitions. When we are scientific, we impose essential characteristics on nature.

If we recognize variation as fundamental (maybe we don’t say it is essential) to what we do and observe in educational settings, we adopt a stance that appears to better serve our students than if we maintain the essentialist view. Consider just two situations. First, a far wider range of knowledge, skills, and problems become the domain of education. Local circumstances, individual interests, and emerging tools and discoveries enter the curriculum. This variety does not reflect a deviation from what the curriculum should be, it reflects what the curriculum is whether we want it to be or not.

Second, we can abandon unnecessary ideas such as “learning styles” (which of course is discredited) or its shadow learning preferences. The variation we see in the success of lessons (whatever success means) can easily be explained. That great lesson that has always “worked” to teach the quadratic equation (for example) that failed this time can be explained by variety. The teachers’ specific choices, the students’ attention, the social interactions, the environmental details, and the interactions of these are sufficient explanation of the outcomes in most cases.

Of course, when we accept variety as reality, we also accept that randomness and blurriness affect educational outcomes. This is a difficult reality for parents, teachers, leaders, and tax payers to accept.